20 essentials for AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 2

If you’re looking for some quick revision tips and reminders for AQA English Language Paper 1 Question 2 (the 8-mark language question), I’ve put a short video together to help you. 20 tips to help improve your answer.

You can also find more on Paper 1 Question 2 here:

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

GCSE English Language Writing: Organisation and Links

This post is part of a series about AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2, focusing specifically on Question 5. I’ve been taking you through aspects of the mark out of 24 for content and organisation, specifically looking at appropriate register and form.

When awarding a mark for content and organisation, we have a number of things to consider in order to arrive at a mark. In fact, you wouldn’t believe the intricacies of the things that are considered.

No wonder my head hurts when I’m marking… and no wonder students forget things.

As you can see, we’re making decisions about all the aspects here. I’ve spent the last few posts looking at things that help you create the right register, as well as ticking a few boxes for structural features too. I’ve also looked at development, and ways you can extend your ideas.

Next up is organisation and linking: how you can reach the top marks. I’m specifically looking at three things: paragraphs & cohesion, discourse markers and links between ideas

I’ve separated these strands out for you:

There is one about links and ideas: how well the ideas are linked to each other, ranging from ‘not at all’ at the bottom to ‘really well’ at the top.

Then there’s a strand about how coherent your paragraphs are, ranging from ‘no paragraphs’ to ‘fluently linked paragraphs’

These two strands are what I’ll roughly term ‘links within paragraphs’ and ‘links between paragraphs’. We used to call these things cohesion and coherence, but I’ve not seen those terms for a while, and those are kind of vague and confusing words anyway. They both kind of mean similar things.

Links within paragraphs (what I’d call coherence) is the way the parts of a thing fit together as a whole. That could be, of course, at a whole-text level, about your whole thing, but it can also be on a paragraph by paragraph basis.

There is a very nice definition here:

Coherence is the bridges between words, sentences and paragraphs

What I’d call the glue or mortar between the pieces or ‘bricks’ that make up the ‘wall’ of an essay. They’re the things you do when you write that connect your ideas together.

So when I get some writing, I look at it and I think ‘how is this idea connected to the next/last?’ – ‘why does it need to come in this order?’

It’s the things you do that make your writing connected and that make it ‘flow’, or make it fluent. You see things in the markscheme about it being fluent, about it being integrated, about it being seamless.

Basically, at the bottom, ideas in paragraphs aren’t joined. At the top, ideas are joined in so many interesting ways that you are amazed by the beauty of that glue when you get out your red pen and look at it carefully.

I’m going to show you both ends of the scale: what writing looks like without any links and what it looks like with very secure links. I’m going to take an adapted task from Writing Connections (Pearson) that I wrote some years ago.

A national TV channel is planning a new programme called ‘Britain’s Got Heroes’, asking the public to nominate their favourite famous hero. Write a letter to the programme organisers in which you give your nomination and explain why you think your hero should be included in the programme.

What I’m going to look at first is some writing where the links are less than clear. You’ll see what I mean straight away.

Dear Sir or Madam,

He was born in Switzerland and is a tennis player. I am a student in Manchester. I will definitely be watching your programme. I am writing to you to nominate my hero Roger Federer. My brother likes Roger Federer and we agree that he is a very good sportsman. He has four children. He got to the quarter finals of Wimbledon in 2001. I really like tennis and so do a lot of other people in England. Roger Federer has a lot of determination. Many people like to watch Wimbledon in the summer. He does a lot of work for charity and he is married to tennis player. He has won many prestigious awards for his tennis playing. He is a very resilient person. I think he should be nominated for your award because he sets a good example.

He has had a very long career and he has a charitable foundation. They would like to see a tennis player win. Roger Federer has had a number of illnesses and injuries. I think it is really admirable when people can remain cool under pressure.

His best tennis year was in 2006 where he won many awards. He supports a lot of charities in South Africa. Tennis is very popular. Roger Federer has been playing tennis professionally for almost twenty years. He did a lot of work after the earthquake in Haiti to help raise funds for the people there.

Thank you for considering my nomination,


I had to really, really try to make this bad. As you can see though, it is a jumbled mess. Let’s start with paragraphs. Well, this has paragraphs. Does this person (me!) know how to use paragraphs? Well, it doesn’t look like it!

I’ve attempted paragraphs, but they’re still random and accidental.

Let’s think about those first and then move into the smaller bits.

What do paragraphs do? A paragraph is more than a bit of space before and after a block of writing. It’s about what’s in that block of writing as well. Let’s look at one of those paragraphs and I’ll tell you why it’s ‘random’…

He has had a very long career and he has a charitable foundation. They would like to see a tennis player win. Roger Federer has had a number of illnesses and injuries. I think it is really admirable when people can remain cool under pressure.

So… the first sentence is about his career AND his charitable foundation. Not really two linked ideas, but let’s see if either of those is picked up in the second sentence?

No. The second sentence is about how popular a tennis player would be as a winner (of what?) and who knows who ‘they’ are?

Are they picked up perhaps in the third sentence?

No. That’s about illness and injuries, not about his long career or his charities, or about why tennis is popular.

What about the fourth?

No. That’s about what the writer finds admirable.

Four completely unlinked sentences. Those ideas have no business being in the same paragraph as each other.

What else is wrong with it?

First, there’s no sense of who ‘he’ is. It’s usual at the beginning of a paragraph to re-state the name or something to make it clear who or what is being talked about. Pronouns are best left for later in the paragraph. There are also connectives like ‘and’ but there is no reason to link the first idea and the second. Then there’s another pronoun, but it’s not clear who ‘they’ are, except it might be referring back to someone outside the paragraph maybe? Again, pronouns are best used when it’s clear who is being referred to – and if in doubt, make sure they’re in the same paragraph. It would be nice to see his name used before the third sentence.

So how could anyone put this right?

The first is by having a plan for your middle paragraphs, and deciding on the order.

Let’s say I go with ‘Who I am – Who I’m nominating’, then I go with ‘information about Roger Federer’s tennis career’, then ‘information about his charitable work’, then finally I have ‘my reasons to nominate him’.

As I’ve said in other posts, three to four main ideas that are then expanded into paragraphs or sections is a good number to ensure detail and development as well as a range of ideas.

My plan doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.

I will also decide in my plan which ideas are going to come to best explain why I’ve nominated him. Is his charitable work actually more important than his tennis? Or do you need to know about his personality through his tennis record to understand his charitable work?

Thinking about it, his charitable work sounds more like a quality for nominating a hero than playing tennis. He could play tennis and be an evil villain who keeps his millions locked up in a mansion with his seven wives, all of whom he beats.

Spending two minutes deciding on the main ideas I’m going to include and then deciding on the order those ideas would be best to go in will help me no end when it comes to writing in a clear and organised way.

To help me do this, some of the ways to develop my paragraphs are going to help. I think, once I’ve made my point, I might use a series of questions, and then some examples, a little explanation, maybe even some numbers to show just how generous he is. I’m remembering too that I’m writing to explain rather than to persuade, and so I may be more reasoned than I would be with a more pressing purpose.

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about his work in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi? What about his donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? His involvement in Rally for Relief to support victims of the 2004 tsunami? Whilst his own charitable foundation focuses mainly on education, where he has changed the lives of almost a million children, he also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them involved too. 

So, this is my first attempt. Let’s look at those links. Red shows threads related to Roger Federer. Orange is to do with what people know about him. Green is good stuff he has done. Purple are things to do with his global presence. Bold is a development in the idea – that he gets his friends to join in and influences them too.

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about his work in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi? What about his donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? His involvement in Rally for Relief to support victims of the 2004 tsunami? Whilst his own charitable foundation focuses mainly on education, where he has changed the lives of almost a million children, he also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them involved too. 

That gives you a fairly good idea of some of the ways you can link ideas. It’s so much more than the occasional discourse marker or connective!

#1 Direct repetition. Some of this is probably something you missed, like ‘get involved’. You can do this much more subtly by keeping them fairly far apart, and modifying them slightly to make them less noticeable.

#2 Synonyms. These needn’t be single words. ‘Across the globe’ and ‘around the world’ work like that.

#3 Pronouns. This just means substituting ‘he’ for ‘Roger Federer’ as and where suitable, along with all the other variations on that.

#4 Reference chains. This is where you use a combination of synonyms, direct repetition and pronouns to refer to ideas. There aren’t many in the passage, but Roger Federer – the tennis ace – this generous sports star – he – my favourite sports personality – the Swiss tennis player and so on would be a reference chain. We use reference chains not only to secure links and avoid too much repetition, but also to build up bias.

#5 Lexical fields. There are two ways to build up a word group. One is through picking out one word – like support- and building up the other word classes around it. Support in this case is a noun: ‘the support he offers’, so I can use other words from the same family: to support, supporting, supported, supportive, supportively, supporter, and so on. The other type of lexical field I can use are ones in the same group, sort of like synonyms or linked words, but I can also think of the sense of the word. Do I mean support as in he is a foundation, something structural? Because I can imply that he’s a cornerstone, a foundation, that he’s created an infrastructure, that underpins things, picking out lots of words to do with building. Or I could also mean financial support, like aid. I like the idea of him building something, that he is creating something sustainable, that will last when he is gone.

#6 Anaphoric reference. This is just a posh way of saying referring back to ideas or words you’ve used before. You’ll use #1-5 to do this. You can also use deictic reference. And that’s a posh way for terms like this, those, these, here, there, then, now. It also includes pronouns too. It helps make writing strong and avoid repetition because you have to have already explained what ‘this’ is, so it’s making your subsequent sentences depend on the first, like its roots are in previous sentences and the idea grows from that base.

#7 Discourse markers. This is the exam board term for words and phrases that not only link forward and backwards, like so, then, and, next, consequently, moreover and so on, but also words and phrases that indicate what something is. Words and phrases like for example, for instance and such as indicate an example. Then you have ones that indicate comparison and contrast, like similarly and alternatively. You have ones that identify explanation, that identify something is additional, that indicate logical order or to introduce summary. In the real world, many of you may find these things called ‘connectives’ or ‘conjunctions’. Dr Ian McCormick in his book, The Art of Connection: The Social Life of Sentences’ (see I told you Pop Non-Fiction likes colons in titles) explains a lot more about how sentences connect, if you’re a complete language boffin and you wish for more. For normal mortals, however, you can find good lists of helpful connectives.

Just a note on those helpful connectives: please don’t stuff them into your writing. I’ve seen students using one every single sentence. Also, consider where you put them. They don’t always have to go at the beginning.

So, if I’m looking back at my first example and at the markscheme, I’m definitely ‘coherent’ in my second paragraph, but I don’t think I’m fluently linked. They’re also clear, connected ideas too. That leaves me room for polish. I’m going to use some of the things from my list of 7 types of linking devices to smarten up and tighten up my writing.

So let’s polish…

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about the financial aid he gave to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Or his organisation of the Rally for Relief to offer economic support to victims of the 2004 tsunami? But it’s not just about the money. Through his connections and position as sports’s most well-known humanitarian, this compassionate tennis ace has founded a legacy that goes beyond cash donations. The Roger Federer Foundation has been pivotal in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi in building an infrastructure for educational development that will impact generations to come. It has already changed the lives of almost a million children. Perhaps most commendable are his efforts to encourage others to contribute as well. He also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them to pitch in and participate too.

So I’ve made some small changes, including moving one idea further on in the paragraph. I thought, looking back at it that it should go: financial aid – building a sustainable foundation – involving his rich and famous friends. If I were starting from scratch completely, I’d probably go from financial aid to involving his friends and then to the wider foundation. It makes more sense in terms of logical argument. Himself – his circle – a wider, global network. But it was a bit late to tinker. I’ve tried to add in some phrases that mark an increase in importance of the ideas with perhaps most commendable. Some of the changes I’ve made are small, like adding an or before the second question just to make it a little more clear that it is a different idea. Some just add a bit more variety, like changing ‘get involved’ to pitch in and participate as well as encourage others to contribute. I’ve got a little bias in there as well with the reference to him as this compassionate tennis ace. I changed the bit about his charity to give it the full title – because when I looked at it, the Roger Federer Foundation also picks up on that idea of cornerstones, support and building. Maybe I picked that up by diffusion and it was kind of sitting in the back of my head waiting for me to notice it.

In being more conscious of how your sentences build on one another within a paragraph, and in trying to use those seven linking devices between paragraphs (especially between the opening and the ending), you’ll find your writing is much more tightly structured. Linking your ideas is SO MUCH MORE than simply using a random connective here and there. I told you that it was intricate, and readers notice these things. You may not have understood how they work exactly, but you know when it’s wrong (like in my random first attempt) or when it’s awkward or random. Making solid links within and between paragraphs will help you move up that ladder of assessment, but don’t leave it to chance. The best writers start each sentence picking up ideas from earlier in their writing and consider before they writer where they are going with an idea. I have the luxury of editing. You’ll be writing on paper in an exam. Whilst I had the ability to chop, cut, paste, edit and amend, you will be much more restricted. Even more important, then, that you consider those intricacies of organisation!

GCSE English Language Writing: Essays & Development

You may have arrived here looking for support on how to write essays for AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 2 Question 5 – the non-fiction writing question. Today I’m going to look at how you write an essay (which will also be the main bit of an article, letter or speech with a little adaptation) and how you can develop your ideas.

This post is the fifth in a series looking at letters, articles, speeches and leaflets.

So how do you write an essay (or the main body of the other bits)?

Very simply, you have time to write about three to four developed paragraphs or sections.

Why three to four?

The exam gives you about 50 minutes for planning and writing your response. Take 10 minutes off for thinking, planning and checking and you have about 40 minutes. Take off your introduction and conclusion, and you have about 30 minutes. On a good day at degree level (where I’d peaked at speedy essay writing!) I could manage a side of wide-lined A4 every 8 minutes. I’ll assume you are a little slower, so you’re looking at a maximum of three sides of fairly large handwriting, maximum. I guess I can write a good paragraph in about 7 or 8 minutes, which gives me time to write 3 or 4.

Why else three or four?

Partly, because you need a range of connected ideas to get to 13 or above out of 24. That’s around the Grade 5 boundary, possibly. A range, if you’ve not read this from me before, is not two. Two things are not a range. A range is a minimum of three. So you need three ideas in your response. If you go with the ‘new topic/idea = new paragraph’ approach, then that’s a minimum of three.

To get 16 or above you need a range of clear connected ideas. Ok – still three, just linked better. We’ll look at links next time.

To get 19 or above, you need a range of developed complex ideas. Now, if you are going to be developed and complex, you think that one idea that’s fully developed is enough. It isn’t. You’ve still got a range in there. Now, you may have 27 ideas but if you have 40 minutes to write, you’re looking at possibly 90 seconds on each. If you have 6, you have around 6 minutes on each. 6 minutes does not make for a lot of development.

So for me, it’s a minimum of three points, ideas or reasons, along with development. A maximum of five means you won’t have to sacrifice development.

What if you want to slip into the elusive Grade 9 territory? Those ideas have to be convincing. Other than that, it’s the same really as you’d be doing in the 19-21 band.

That is my secret formula for how many ideas/sections you want to be thinking about for good grades. You don’t want to sacrifice a range, but neither can you sacrifice development. This way, you know you’ve got a range and you know you’ve got time to develop your ideas.

Now most of the students’ work I mark at the lower grades – say Grade 4 and below – do not suffer with a lack of ideas. They’re the kind of papers where there are 27 ideas. None of them are linked and none of them are developed. Students at this level write paragraphs (or notional paragraphs, where there are clear places paragraphs should be even if they’ve been forgotten or left out) that are one or two sentences long.

Let’s take the sample assessment material question as an example:

‘Homework has no value. Some students get it done for them; some don’t do it at
all. Students should be relaxing in their free time.’

Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper in which you explain your point of
view on this statement.

A Grade 3 student is going to be writing a bit like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. 
People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.
There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class.
It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

Can you see? Four ideas, no development and no links at all. They could be in any order at all.

It might even have looked like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class. It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

That’s what I mean about having notional paragraphs. There are places you want to put a paragraph break, but the student either has forgotten, hasn’t bothered or didn’t know.

The biggest problem students have moving up is learning how to develop their non-fiction paragraphs. Organising them can be pretty challenging too.

So, today, I’m going to give you NINE ways that you can develop and extend your paragraphs. They are not a checklist. You don’t have to do all nine. Some will be appropriate and some might not fit. Some might work and others won’t. And definitely don’t do all nine in one paragraph. That would be hideously unnecessary.

So, let’s take one of those ideas and give some examples of each of our nine things. I’m going to pick the clearest argument, that if you do it wrong, you’ve wasted your time, and then I’m going to have a play around with the nine ideas as examples.

#1 Explanation

This has got to come in at number 1, since this question is often going to be asking you to explain your viewpoint. An explanation is just you telling me why.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. 

As you can see, all I’m doing is explaining why it’s a waste of time. An explanation, by the way, is a good place for a colon. If you’ve read my post about colons, you’ll know why.

#2 Analogy

An analogy just means explaining something using “it’s like…”, kind of a bit like a simile. It points out the connections so that a reader can understand a difficult point and puts it in an image that is more clear for them. My analogy builds pretty nicely on the bit I just did, so I’ll continue:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. It’s like if you learn to cycle with your knees pointing out – you’ve practised it so often like that it just becomes natural to you. Even when people point out that you need to keep your knees in, it’s really hard to do it especially in the heat of the moment. It’s the same way with much of what we learn. The more we practise those errors, the more fixed they become.

So you can see me using a mix of analogy (the bit about the bike) and explanation – why homework is like that. I like to always finish an analogy by coming back to the central idea that connects the two, and explain why X is like Y. You might find that overkill, but I think it makes my writing a bit more neat in terms of organisation.

#3 Examples

Examples cover a broad range of ideas, some of which I’ll expand on by themselves. They help put things into practical terms, and work especially well for abstract ideas. Let’s take that first topic sentence again and expand it with an example:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. If you keep making errors with commas, for example, and you just keep practising those errors, all that will happen is you’ll make those errors so many times that you think they’re right. There’s no way all your teachers will pick up on all the times you make mistakes with your commas, and so the more you make, the more you’ll think that’s how it’s supposed to be. 

Rather than being airy-fairy, examples are easy to imagine. They give weight to your explanation and make it into a real-life situation so that your reader can see the value in what you say. They help make the hypothetical or speculative into a somethingn that is easy to grasp. You can also use some discourse markers, like such as, for instance or for example to help make it clear that this is what you are doing.

#4 Anecdote

An anecdote is a specific form of example: one that is a personal story. It doesn’t have to be personal to you, but that’s one way you can do it.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. In Maths, for example, I did five hours of quadratic equations one week. By the time the teacher marked them, I’d really thought I had the process perfect. I did the factoring all wrong, but I practised it so many times that by the time I got my homework back with 0%, it wasn’t just demoralising for me, but it was also really hard to learn the right way of doing it because I’d practised it badly so many times. 

Anecdotes are the opposite of statistics in many ways: where statistics have lots of numbers involved (usually!) anecdotes are individual and personal. They’re useful though because once again, they put things in practical terms. They’re also useful because when you describe it and give that little bit of narrative, I can really see what you mean.

#5 Facts (and assertions)

A fact is something that can be proven with evidence – although you might not always have the evidence there. I ask myself whether or not your statement can be verified. If it can, then it’s a fact.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. It makes it very hard when you’ve done things wrong for a long time to then do it right. 

The last bit of this is a statement that sounds like a fact. Can it be verified? I’m guessing someone somewhere has done an experiment with mice to show that if they’ve always run through a maze one way, it makes it hard for them to then change the habit. It sounds like a fact, for sure. In the exam, you don’t have access to back-copies of scientific studies and lab results, so you will have to make things up. Facts make you sound authoritative and scientific. An assertion, by the way, is a statement that sounds like a fact but isn’t really, or there’s no real evidence for. It might be right or it might be wrong. Assertions are what you’ll mostly be making in the exam. That said, many writers make assertions in arguments or persuasive writing and write so authoritatively that you think it is a fact when it’s not. In the real world, I hate this. It’s a bit of false expertise. For instance, those who say ‘text speak and emoticons have a negative impact on spelling’… well, no study has been done on that, and it’s not shown in exams. Assertions make you sound like an expert. Many people give away their assertions by saying things like it’s a fact that or it’s true that and turn their opinions into facts. Say, for instance, I say “I believe that homework is unnecessary”, I can make it into a false fact or assertion by removing the “I believe that” bit. Homework is unnecessary. That sounds like a fact. But you and I both know that it is not. If I want to sound even more confident, I might add “It’s a fact that homework is unnecessary” which is my last-ditch desperate attempt to convince you that my opinion is a fact.

#6 Numbers and statistics

This is one I actually hate and I find it can be the one part of writing that comes across as really ridiculous. You’ll have lots of lovely argument or explanation, and then it’ll all be ruined by a number or statistic that is utterly unconvincing, even if it’s true. Too big, and it seems unrealistic. Too precise and it also seems unrealistic.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 83% of students make the same error in every single homework they do. 

That sounds ridiculous because it is too precise. It’s also too big. But if I make it too small, it seems silly.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 3% of students make the same errors time and time again. 

As if that’s a reason to get rid of homework!

Getting the balance right is hard. It has to sound sensible. Most statistics and numbers don’t, particularly for students at Grade 4 – 6. It can be the one ugly, niggling little detail that makes something sound inauthentic.

So, if you must use them, err on the side of caution and generalise.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. According to a recent survey, almost a third of students admitted that they make the same mistake in every piece of homework, but they don’t know how to change. 

One of my students in the week was writing a Paper 2 piece about teenagers, in which he’d made up a nice statistic about 20% of teenagers having been wrongly arrested. That sounded a lot, but it also sounded a bit made up. It might have been more believeable to say that for teenage arrests, almost 90% went without charges being pressed. We did a bit of research and found 74,588 young people (16-17) in 2008-9 were convicted, reprimanded or warned. There are about 1.5 million 16 year olds in the UK, so you could work out actual statistics, especially if you had numbers for people taken into custody – which is what I would do were I really writing an article about false or unproductive arrests for teenagers. However, as soon as I get specific with big numbers, like saying “There are 1504788 16 year olds in the UK”, it sounds immediately made up. Newspapers and magazines, alongside speech writers, round up statistics all the time to make them more palatable. Can you imagine even trying to say 1504788 in a speech? “There are one million five hundred and four thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight sixteen year olds in the UK.” After five hundred, I bet you were scratching your head. Too precise statistics sound ridiculous. Round up and sound real.

Just as an aside, I went through the ten most-read opinion articles in each major paper today, and only two had a statistic in them. Numbers, sometimes, like 202 people were killed in the Bali bombing in 2002, or 9 of the 11 countries with the best equal rights records are in the EU. They aren’t used as often as you think they are, I promise. If you’re going to use them, get them right, and avoid if not.

#7 Series of questions

These are not rhetorical questions, always, but just questions. You may well go on to answer them. Remember, I’m not such a fan of rephrasing the question to start off your answer (simply because I remember one year on an old, old paper where it seemed like everyone had done it – and it was really, really annoying after a while).

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? 


Especially URGH if you’re going to do this afterwards:

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? I have.

But done properly, a row of questions can make a nice point.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. What’s the point in making error after error? Especially if it rarely gets corrected? 

Two felt like a good number here. But three or four wouldn’t be unreasonable. I just didn’t have any more questions that seemed to fit. These questions are really good at making it obvious that there is no point at all in making error after error, or never being corrected.

#8 Imagine ifs…

An “Imagine if” is a good way to speculate about a future or a situation which isn’t currently the case. It’s a ‘best case scenario’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ where you put forward all the possible good things that could be the case IF your suggestions were put into place. It’s the ideal, the possible, the dream scenario.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there’s a better way to learn? A way in which students get fairly immediate feedback that they can act on quickly. This may seem like a wild dream, but it happens already. In-class oral feedback, whether it’s from your peers or from a teacher, is a much better way to avoid endless repetition of error that just makes them more and more hardened. Guided writing, peer writing and small group work is a way to take pressure off teachers and enable students to become better appraisers of not only their own work, but also that of others. Isn’t that the ideal we’re all working for?

By putting forward hypothetical best-case scenarios, you’re presenting all the positive reasons to do something. It’s non-confrontational, it’s celebratory and it’s inoffensive. Who could criticise you for wanting to change things for the better? If you’re writing to a school to ban homework – part of the very institution of schools – you’ll win more votes with blue skies than with tellings off, I promise. It works very well when you pile it up with number 9…

#9 Worst-case scenarios

If you’re using blue skies and possibilities to imagine a better future, it’s nice to contrast that with the flaws of the current system. It’s particularly nice if you imagine those flaws from the perspective of your reader – ones you know they’re going to admit to.

What isn’t nice is if you turn it into a big list of selfish moans.

Homework is the bane of our lives. It makes us miserable. We hate it. You only do it to torture us, or because you think OfSTED think you should, or the parents complain if you don’t give us something to do. It’s cheating us of our lives and turning us into mindless drones. I don’t even get a social life because of it. I hate homework!

Imagine what your audience would criticise it for and then describe it from their point of view.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there are better ways to spend your evenings than poring over exercise books – homework half-completed, tatty, lacking in application or effort. Is there anything worse than the sinking sense of déjà vu that you’ve marked their/there wrong in every single piece of Billy’s homework since the day he started in Year 7, and he still hasn’t got it? You tell him and you tell him, but nothing changes. It’s a waste of your time and a waste of your effort. But why is it that Billy still isn’t getting it? Is it because he just hadn’t understood at all? And if writing a big long explanation underneath each time isn’t helping, what will? Studies show that the best feedback is immediate: five minutes working with Billy until he has that lightbulb moment might be all it takes. That’s surely got to be one of the best reasons to put an end to the monotony of marking? 

In that final bit, you can see how I’m blending series of questions, made-up anecdotes, facts (made-up ones), examples, worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, explanation… Those nine things help me really build up my paragraph into something beyond those simple topic sentence paragraphs. Is that a developed, complex idea? I like to think so. Is it convincing? I’ll leave that to you to decide. It’s convincing to me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Two more paragraphs like that, along with the appropriate tailoring for whatever text-type you’re writing, a genre-specific opening and ending, and you have yourself a well-rounded GCSE English Language non-fiction response.

In the next post I’ll be looking at ways you can organise and link your ideas more securely to improve your marks.

Curley’s Wife…

Despite what some people may say, I am not clairvoyant. It was only by chance that my post on Curley’s Wife ended up being so appropriate for this term’s GCSE English Literature AQA paper.

Unfortunately, the responses make fairly depressing reading. I’d have thought that England’s youth were fundamentalists who believed women deserve to be killed for their behaviour. Reading the following statements makes me more sympathetic to Curley’s Wife, not less:

  • She’s a whore
  • She’s a “tart”
  • She deserves to die
  • Women shouldn’t dress up
  • Women shouldn’t hang around men
  • Women belong in the kitchen
  • Curley’s Wife shouldn’t have come out of the kitchen
  • Curley’s Wife is cheating on her husband

All of this makes me very sad. Do we really think she deserves to die because she hangs around with a ‘dumb-dumb’ who doesn’t realise his own strength? It seems a) pre-historic, b) fundamentalist and c) sexist. And it makes me want to hurt people when GIRLS (especially girls who have the privilege to grow up free in the UK, to vote, to be the same as men, to become whatever we want to be!) are saying that girls shouldn’t talk to other men because if they do, they get what they deserve.

To be fair, much of the evidence about Curley’s Wife seems to suggest that she is a ‘tart’. And the men on the farm definitely seem to think she gets what’s coming to her.

But does Steinbeck?

And should we think that too?

I think, for me, that’s part of the tragedy. And, for the record, NO woman, no matter what she does, DESERVES to die – no man, either. All of us, people or book characters (even Voldemort and Moriarty) are shades of grey. None of us are either good or bad (maybe Oliver Twist is all good…) but that’s what makes us interesting.

First… you’ve got to put her in context. The first thing we learn in relation to her is that Lennie got himself ‘run out’ of Weed and was in some trouble. We don’t realise that Lennie and Curley’s Wife are on a collision course yet, but Steinbeck feeds us lots of clues. There’s a massive sense of inevitability about it all, it’s bound to happen. But it doesn’t mean it deserves to happen – not to anyone involved.

The second ‘clue’ is of course the mouse. Lennie starts by being too rough with the mouse. Then the puppy. Then Curley’s Wife. Another inevitability. Bound to happen.

The third is the dress. It’s George who gives us the clue: “jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress… jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse… well how the hell did she know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse.” As soon as we hear about dresses and soft things we remember what happens to Lennie’s mice. It’s not a subtle clue. Steinbeck repeats it over and over.

George knows, too. He knows there will be trouble. It’s a whole other story and blog about why George doesn’t stop it since he knows what’s likely to happen, but as far as Curley’s Wife’s concerned, she’s like one of those characters in Final Destination who know their time is up. It’s inevitable. It’s bound to happen from the very first part of the story.

It’s in Chapter two where we begin to get hints about Curley’s Wife. First is that Curley has been more aggressive recently, because he’s just married. Candy says: “Seems to me like he’s worse lately… he got married a couple of weeks ago.”

And the first thing George learns? Curley is aggressive. He keeps his ‘glove fulla vaseline’ and that whatever reason that’s for, it’s a ‘dirty thing to tell around’. Her husband is an aggressive, fight-seeking bully with Small-Man syndrome, spreading all kinds of rumours about his wife. And you wonder why, even after two weeks, his wife is out of the house?! This is the first thing that makes me sympathetic towards Curley’s Wife. She’s married to a vile, angry bigot who has to throw his weight around to make up for all his inadequacies.

I’ll explain why I don’t even blame her for marrying him later.

So the first gossip George gets on the ranch is about Curley and his wife. Candy is an old fish-wife, gossiping about things that are nothing to do with him. Candy’s opinion -one he shares freely with us and with George is that ‘she’s got the eye’. She’s looking at other men. And then Candy gives his evidence. ‘I seen her give Slim the eye… and I seen her give Carlson the eye’

Now, maybe if she lives on a farm filled with workers who look like lean, muscular Diet-Coke-Break-type men, it’s fairly feasible she might be giving them the once over. But most farm workers are dirty, sweaty and smelly. Believe me. I live in farm country and I’ve never seen a lean, muscular type in the fields. Just a lot of dirty, sweaty, foul-mouthed stinky men in dungarees. I came looking for six-packs and tans, men with their shirts off, and I got sexist redneck yokels who think a woman has no place on a tractor seat. Such is life. Maybe Curley’s Wife had the same thought? I wanted Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise and instead, I got the bar full of rednecks and hillbillies.

So… we either believe a gossipy old man’s opinion of a girl who has lived on the farm for two weeks – that she’s giving all the men the eye – or we use our common sense and wonder how likely is it that she actually finds EVERYONE attractive – except Candy? Carlson, need I remind you, is described as a ‘powerful, big-stomached man’… not exactly appealing!

Not only that, after Candy’s said he saw her giving Slim the eye, he then explains what a nice guy Slim is. And then he tacks on ‘and I seen her give Carlson the eye too’ – as if he’s realised that finding Slim attractive isn’t going to be quite enough to convince George. Not only that, when George doesn’t get in on his gossipy old woman ways, he says ‘I think Curley’s married a tart.’

Obviously a tart because she looks at another man. No, two other men. Maybe Candy would prefer her with the full burqa so she can’t look at anyone? No point saying that because she’s the only woman on the farm that unless she spends all her time staring into space, she’s going to – from time to time – look at another man. Heaven save us!

In fact, George’s main concern for Lennie after this insight from Candy is that it’s Curley that Lennie has to watch out for, not his wife. That, of course, will change.

You need to read my other blog on Curley’s Wife if you want a more in-depth analysis of her entrance, but suffice to say she wants attention and company. And look at her ‘apprehensive’ reaction when she realises Curley is back at the ranch house and she isn’t there. Is that fear? Why is she afraid and why does she run off?

George does call her a ‘tramp’, to be fair. But she’s done nothing other than try and talk to the men. George just falls straight in line with the gossip given to him by Candy. He only calls her ‘poison’ and ‘jailbait’ only as a reaction to Lennie who is mesmerised. He’s had one interaction with her. That’s all. He says he’s seen her type before, and I’m sure he has, but just because he says these things doesn’t mean they’re true. They’re his opinions. It doesn’t mean they’re not true either. It’s what George thinks. Maybe it’s what Steinbeck thinks. Maybe it’s what you think. The only thing for certain is that it is what George says. He says she’s a rat-trap, that he bets she’d ‘clear out for twenty dollars’ – all based off a page worth of an interaction. I wonder if it’s just to put the fear of God in Lennie, or if it’s what he really thinks. Either way, this is George’s opinion, and it doesn’t have to be yours.

Only when George opens up to Slim and says “he [Lennie] seen this girl in a red dress” – I don’t know about you, but I just don’t know how George isn’t thinking ‘Uh-oh!’ – It’s not as if it’s not perfectly obvious what Lennie will try and do. And each time, it’s progressively more serious. Lynch mob last time, there’s going to be a lynch mob this time too. Curley’s Wife could be any woman in a red dress. Make her desperate for attention with a husband who she later ends up saying she doesn’t like, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

The next time she’s mentioned is briefly in the fight between Lennie and Curley – and then it’s only because George is still disgusted over the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ story. And after that, she comes to Crooks’ room on the Saturday night.

“Think I don’t know where they all went?” she asks. And we know. All of the men – including her husband of just over two weeks – have gone to a whorehouse. And she knows it. Excuse me if I think that’s not exactly nice. And excuse me if I feel a little sorry for her.

She knows, too. “If I catch any one man, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him.” – but it’s a different story when there’s more than one man. She says she thinks they’re all afraid one of them will get something more than the others, they’re all afraid of each other. When they get something better, they’re just afraid someone will steal it from them, and when they don’t have it, they’re jealous of those who do and spiteful towards them. That’s even tougher – knowing that things would be fine if it just weren’t for the feelings between all of these men – things that are nothing to do with her.

And although by the end of the scene, we’re left disgusted by her words, here, we see how things are for her: “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while?”

Candy’s response is ‘go back to your house.’ – to be honest, he’s the man in the most fragile position. He’s useless. He’s of no benefit on the farm. So he’s the one who needs the trouble least – I guess that could explain why he speaks as he does. It’s his (old fashioned and misogynistic!) view that she shouldn’t talk to other men. And then she explodes. We’ve seen her husband. She calls them ‘you bindle bums’ – she really doesn’t like them very much, and yet Candy thinks she’s got the eye for all of them.

Now – here’s the bit I don’t like. She’s arrogant. She thinks she’s so much better. She looks down on them (another reason she wouldn’t cheat with one of them? They’re just not good enough for her!) – she says “I tell ya I could of went with shows” And she’s disgusted. It’s Saturday night – the pinnacle of the week – and she’s left on the farm with a ‘bunch of bindle stiffs’ and ‘likin’ it because they ain’t nobody else.’

Not only that, but they’re always calling her a girl, yet it’s obvious she gets what’s going on. She knows where her husband is. She realises the dream is the same dream every single one of the migrant workers have. She realises that Lennie is the one who crushed Curley’s hand. And she likes it. He’s become an ally. Both Candy and Crooks try to get her to clear off, but she won’t. And then, under attack, she becomes vicious and mean: “I could get you strung up from a tree so easy it ain’t even true.”

And any feelings I had of pity evaporate. She’s cruel and she realises her power. She has the potential for petty, nasty, cruel comments.

However, when we next see her, in the scene in the barn, after Lennie has killed the pup, she seems lonely and sad once more. She’s so lonely she’ll talk to a ‘dumb-dumb’ who’s just killed a puppy. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never been that desperate for conversation. And it’s all she wants. She says ‘you’re a nice guy’ – and what she means is that it’s not like Lennie is going to do anything to Curley’s Wife – or certainly not in the way she imagines – and she just can’t understand why she hasn’t got the right to talk to someone else. And she says ‘I ain’t used to livin’ like this’ – which makes it all the more sad. She’s been hoodwinked by some guy in a show when she was 15, who said she should have gone with the fair. She’s been hoodwinked again by a cheese-monger who says he was going to put her in the movies. She’s a victim of men. She blames her mother for stealing her letter, whilst we realise how sad it is that she trusted men, she believed in them. She believed the man would put her in movies and she’d rather fall out with her mother than admit her mother is honest and the man was not. All she’s interested in are nice clothes and being pretty – having people paying attention to her. The dream of being an actress is as hollow and shallow as those paedophile photographers who prey on teenage girls and end up encouraging them to be ‘glamour models’ or work in the sex industry having initially convinced them they could be on the catwalk. It’s a story a million innocent, naive girls have been told a million times. It’s sad. It’s sad that women trust men like that and it’s sad that they fall for the stories. But I for one have absolutely no faith in her story. She couldn’t have been in the movies – she’s just a small town girl. Living in a lonely world.

Steinbeck’s own opinion only becomes clear when he describes her dead body: “all the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face.”

You don’t even have to ask yourself what Steinbeck might think. He tells you clearly. This is no-one’s opinion – just his own description. Yes she’s cruel. Yes she has dreams, just like the men. She’s unhappy and she ‘ached’ for attention.

But she still gets blamed. Candy blames her: “You goddamn tramp!” and yes, that’s his opinion, but it’s not mine. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here: the clash between two destinies, two things bound to happen, two accidents in the making. And like most accidents, there’s a sense that this wouldn’t have happened in a different place and a different time. At least, not for her. She’s just the vessel of Lennie’s actions. She could have been any girl. In a way, she is, because of her namelessness. She could be any wife on any farm. Her being killed was not inevitable until she met Lennie.

And you can ask yourself: is it more tragic or less tragic if she’s just ‘a jailbait tramp’, or a sad, lonely girl with ruined dreams of her own? I personally think it’s more sad that she was NOT a tramp – she’s got to be more than just a stereotype, surely? Her husband doesn’t even care about her death, only that he gets to exact his revenge on Lennie. Her death in itself is sad. That Lennie and she were on a collision course is also sad. That Lennie cannot deviate from that path of inevitability is sad too.

Don’t forget: Curley’s wife is ALSO a stereotype. She’s Eve. She’s responsible for the ruination of men’s dreams, of men’s chance to enter paradise. But that’s a pretty old-fashioned view, and not really one that I share. I think Eve, much like Curley’s Wife, was in a position of inevitability and she takes a lot of blame for Man’s downfall, as if Man isn’t in control of himself. That’s a pretty Victorian view – that women should be hidden away just in case they accidentally tempt a man. Lord help all the men!

My final video is Poison’s FABULOUS hair rock anthem: “Momma’s Fallen Angel” mainly because of the country girl hitting the streets of California but – coincidentally – the young girl ends up the victim of a man JUST like the men who chatted Curley’s Wife up in the bars in Salinas. And also it’d be rude not to have a bit of air guitar and lipstick and glam hair rock. Girls ending up the victims of ‘Movie Mogul’ predators – a stereotype as old as Hollywood itself.

So please don’t take what Candy says as how women should be, or even should have been in 1930s America. It’s not. It’s Candy’s view. It’s a view that’s sexist, old-fashioned and even somewhat fundamentalist. But nobody says women shouldn’t have been hanging around men, or that, Oh Hideous Thought, they ‘deserved’ to die. We’re not living in some backward part of some fundamentalist country where women are stoned for talking to men or flashing a bit of leg. This is 1930s America, not Saudi Arabia. The same year the book was written, Amelia Earhart – aviatrix extraordinaire – disappeared over the Pacific ocean. Women might not yet have the equality a war and birth control would eventually afford them, but we didn’t have to cover ourselves from head-to-foot in order to avoid some ‘dumb-dumb’ strangling us in a barn, and then to have a percentage of England’s female teenagers say we deserved it. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had already begun the movement for equal rights, and just because Candy blames Curley’s Wife for the destruction of their dream, it’s not the way it is. It was a thing as inevitable as night following day.

Okay. Lecture over.